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Road Trip to Elko: Cowboy Poetry VIII

Spectrum magazine’s slogan, “Community through conversation” perfectly summarizes this heady week in Elko. It has been one non-stop conversation, through poetry and song, through all day and late night conversations with our many new friends. We’ve talked about what brought us here, about this culture that not only values family, traditions, and the holiness of everyday life—but has a passionate need to capture the stories, remember the dead, ask the big questions, and honor the small moments.

Dance is also part of this culture, but something that’s never been a part of my life. But we decided to step outside our comfort zones and signed up for a beginner’s class in East coast swing. Over a hundred people showed up in the old high school gymnasium and valiantly attempted to learn the basic steps—at over 5,000 feet elevation!

The Western Folklife Center has been home-away-from-home this week, and where everyone gathers between shows for conversation, music, and a variety of demonstrations. After lunch at the picturesque Stray Dog Saloon, we ended up back at the center just as a knot-tying demonstration was happening around the fireplace alcove. We took turns at the computer (which we set up on top of the piano). As Anne wrote, I marveled at the magician-like skills of the demonstrator.

A chance encounter with Australian poet Milton Taylor last night brought us to a session entitled “Poetry in Everyday Life,” where his recitation of the poem “Somebody’s Darling” (pictured reciting, below) literally had me sobbing. Poets John Dofflemyer and Joel Nelson read poems ranging from their experiences as Vietnam Vets to an ode written to a wife of thirteen years. Linda Hussa from Cedarville, CA, read poems from her book that told stories about growing up in California’s most northeastern corner, and her family’s relationships with the Indians at the local rancheria.

Then on to another Members’ Show, courtesy of our press passes, and an absolutely side-splitting session with old timers Pat Richardson and Glenn Ohrlin (pictured), who had a way with telling tall tales that had us holding our sides for an hour. They were followed by the band Hot Club of Cowtown from Austin (pictured, below), Texas, whose energetic performance literally had the entire auditorium pulsing to their rhythms.

By late afternoon we were not only starved but exhausted, and decided to give our tickets for the next show to a friend, have an early dinner, and head on over to a party at a private home to which we’d been invited while talking to locals John and Janice at the Everyday Life session. Elko resident Sara Sweetwater opens her home during Gathering week and runs a western version of a salon; her graciousness made us feel right at home, and we literally gawked at her eclectic home overflowing with the gatherings of a lifetime spent traveling and collecting art, both folk and fine. Fiddlers, guitar players and singers took turns entertaining the guests, and we hated to leave.

But the Friday night dance still loomed, and Hot Club of Cowtown was playing. We showed up early for a little refresher from swing instructors Nancy Kern and Kraig Sundberg. As the hall filled, we were truly awestruck watching dancers who were either very, very good, or who had been dancing together for a very long time—or both.

Then back once again to the Center, for more conversation and music as musicians gathered to jam after their shows. Elko is apparently a town that never sleeps; after the Center finally closed down (long, long after my usual bedtime!), it was off to a venue across the street called Wild Women that had been recommended. Part local watering hole and part art gallery, the jamming and chatting continued late into the night.

Anne’s report:

Laura took mercy on me this morning and let me sleep in. I rolled out of bed showered in record time and we were literally dancing by 10 a.m.! Laura and one of our new friends, Marty, partnered up and I got paired with a young, gentleman Cowboy named Cade from Cedar City, Utah. We did pretty darn good I thought. I told him learning to dance would become the best “pick up line” a young man could ever develop. He beamed and I could tell he thought that was a pretty good deal. We worked up a healthy appetite that we fed at the Stray Dog Saloon and then I discovered that I CAN write in the middle of several dozen people sitting on a piano bench!

Poetry in Everyday Life was all that the name conjures, an intimate setting with no fancy backdrops, just good “conversation”. One of the themes brought up was the keynote address earlier in the week by Sandra Day O’Connor that talked about growing up on a ranch and the need to get back to the basics of life and take care of business. The keynote address generally sets the tone for the Gathering and this one surely did. Something that resonated with me was that even one man’s life is important and should not be forgotten. That is exactly what these four poets do. I don’t generally speak up at these conversation style sessions but was moved to do so and I guess I must have said something eloquent as they closed the show with my statement and we again made new friends as both one of the poets and local John Collette introduced themselves and we ended up with a personal invitation to Sara Sweetwater’s home to see the “real poetry of Elko”. John conducts the ranch tours here during the Gathering and he was very interested in continuing our dialog later in relationship to the agritours I do on my family ranch.

We ran a little late getting to the Members show with Pat Richardson, Glenn Ohrlin and the Hot Club of Cowtown ( I could write a whole article on this talented, sassy group of musicians) and I confess to being on mental overload (again!) and could not remember the theme of this particular show, but it did not take me but a moment to realize that it was the best comedy show I had ever been to. To describe Glenn, who must be at least an octogenarian, would take more words than I have here, but his aged, milky eyes still twinkled and his snaggle teeth lent a character that was unforgettable. We bumped into him later at dinner and had the privilege of thanking him for his show. When we said we almost peed our pants with laughter he stated, “You mean a tear ran down your leg?” Need I say more?

After a literally-inhaled steak and potatoes to refuel we headed back to the hotel for another wardrobe change and followed our directions to Sara’s home. This eclectic woman had photographers at the door where a pictorial guest registration was recorded for posterity. We again met new friends, one of which joined us at the dance and twirled me around the dance floor for several hours until we were both exhausted but filled to the brim with laughter.

Laura has summarized the rest of the very late night so well that I could not possibly add anything more, unless it is to say again that we have not met a stranger here since we pulled into town.

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